Lessons from a Farmer


  • Author Larry C. Pickett
  • Published October 29, 2023
  • Word count 984

Lessons from a Farmer: By Larry C. Pickett

As a boy, I always enjoyed talking with my grandfather. He was a former sharecropper who migrated to Pittsburgh from rural Alabama. Moreover, he was a great storyteller. I believe this is why I enjoy analogies and metaphors so much today. The journey wasn't easy in those days, he said. Interstate travel was not user-friendly for African American people. We couldn't stay at various hotels or eat at certain restaurants. It was challenging. At the time, he and his wife had four children - one of which included my mother.

His decision to move north was based on the poor economic conditions of the south. Moreover, it was based on Alabama's well-known Jim Crow Laws. He said, "I was convinced that working in a steel mill next to a hot blast furnace was better than being a sharecropper on a cotton plantation." Both jobs were hard work—one just paid more. The steel industry was dangerous work. But it kept food on the table and a roof over our heads, he said.

A conversation with my grandfather was always simple yet profound. I still remember his deep southern accent, and the way he used to explain things. And despite his fourth-grade education, his words of wisdom intrigued me. The salt and pepper color of his hair seemed to reflect the insightfulness of his mind. When I look in the mirror, I am joyfully reminded of his dark-skinned face. For some reason, the strange tint of his eyes made me think of the sizzling heat of the day—and long rows of cotton.

He dressed like a farmer but carried himself like a prince. And despite his old clothes, he looked like a man of dignity. My grandmother described him as tall, dark, and handsome. Looking back, he taught me several important lessons about rural Alabama, sharecropping and his migration to the north. Among those lessons, was a fascinating story about the "Abolitionist."

My grandfather described abolitionists as silent helpers. He talked about them with great respect. He said, "They were people who truly cared for African Americans. However, they had to be careful not to lose their good standing in the white community." Their primary job was to point African Americans in the right direction. They told runaway slaves where to find the next safe haven.

In many ways, I modified my grandfather's story to meet the modern-day times of corporate America. And based on this premise, I was motivated to write a miniature narrative about an imaginary person that I call "The Corporate Abolitionist."

A corporate abolitionist is best described as a person within the professional ranks of a company who helps another employee succeed. Their role is very similar to a mentor. However, it takes on a slightly different twist. It works the same way as the legendary Underground Railroad.

On the surface, you really can't tell who these silent helpers are. They operate in a very quiet manner. Almost like an organization within an organization. Moreover, they are people from different ethnic groups who are familiar with the system. They help behind the scenes.

Sometimes they can tell you where to find the next job opportunity. Often, they can tell you where pitfalls are—and who you should avoid. According to Leadership Studies 101, these people are classic examples of leaders—informal ones. They exist in practically every organization you can think of. In many cases, these informal leaders are more effective than the formal ones.

While they may seem to use an informal process, their covert operation is very formal. As Shakespeare would say, "they have the ear of Caesar who listens when they speak." In other words, a corporate abolitionist has friends in high places. Managers recognize and respect the influence they have among the ranks.

These individuals (corporate abolitionists) remind me of experienced field sergeants who teach West Point graduates how to survive in combat. Using military slang "they have a lot of fruit salad." Fruit salad is a term used to describe dress uniform medals and military achievements. Better said, these guys have been hit with scrap metal. They're survivors! In addition to their skills and academic education—they’re street wise. Borrowing from urban vernacular, let's just say "They know the ropes."

Above all, I learned that a corporate abolitionist must be able to trust the character and skills of the people they are recommending. Just like in the days of the Underground Railroad, an abolitionist couldn't be too careful.

My grandfather gave me the same advice that I probably would have received from a modern-day abolitionist. There are several important lessons that I learned from him:

• Give your best effort and be consistent in everything you do

• Treat others with courtesy and respect regardless of their position

• Maintain high levels of integrity even if no one is watching you

• Exhibit reliability and hard work ethic

• Be an example for others to see

• Study and learn as much as you can

• Support your fellow team members

• Demonstrate fairness

• Earn the respect of your peers—never demand it

• Be a professional

• Be a leader

In closing, I can never do justice to the words of an abolitionist. But I will try my best to summarize their intentions: A corporate abolitionist illustrates the picture of a mentor leading a fellow employee who has a weak but still burning desire to succeed. The abolitionist serves as a teacher, motivator, and encourager. He or she helps guide professionals to achieve higher goals. Historically speaking, those who were led to safety by these abolitionists never forgot the journey. More importantly, they never forgot their obligation to help other people reach their potential.

Bottom-line: use your professional career to make a difference. Teach other people the secrets to your success. Demonstrate fairness, educate others, and try to lead them away from trouble if you can.

Larry is a certified lean six sigma master black belt (MBB) and certified project manager. He leads projects from their original state to final implementation at Carnegie Mellon University. He serves as co-chair of the PM Center of Excellence at CMU. Larry earned an M.B.A. degree with an emphasis in Management of Technologies from California University of Pennsylvania, an M.S. degree in Leadership Studies from Duquesne University, and a B.A. degree from Clarion University.


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